Transforming Trash to Fruit Trees

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador 

We closed the first community meeting to initiate the women’s compost/garden project in Fanca feeling as though it was the last hundred yards of a mile long race. Here’s a field spotter’s view of how the whole event developed and finished. 

Nicola Mears met with me to discuss being hired as a consultant for demonstrating, training, and assisting people in composting and gardening techniques. She’s a pioneer in tropical permaculture who demonstrates her considerable skills at the remarkable Rio Muchacho farm and ecological education center (see descriptions in previous reports). We expect half of the three hundred families in Fanca’s four sections to participate. Two days later we visited the site for composting donated by the city in Fanca’s fenced municipal vehicle yard. It’s in a spot behind a parking shed with abundant space but needed to be cleared of ground covering plants and a few large rusty vehicle parts. 

Experimented at gathering leaves for compost from someone’s yard debris left at the curb to see what’s involved and how long it takes. Amused several boys who were kicking around a soccer ball in the street. It’s a tediously slow prospect for getting organic material that in an hour netted Ed, Scott and myself only seven pounds worth. 

The mayor’s new appointee to the Department of the Environment, biologist Johnny Delgado, met with Nicola Mears, Ed, Scott, and myself to start planning the project with an eye toward the first public gathering a week later. Saw looming problems with details about home receptacles for compost, pick-ups, how many of 150 participants in home separation of kitchen wastes can realistically fit into the yard for turning the compost pile, which trees to plant for growing into seedlings for planting around houses, and watering. 

New volunteer Sierra Hill from Shasta Bioregion arrives in time to join our next meeting. We make progress on the details from before and schedule writing up an announcement for the community gathering and other publicity. All of us plus Dario Proano meet at the mayor’s house to discuss the range of possibilities for recycling that might be related to this project and the structure of responsibilities. 

The project principals meet with a Fanca church assistant who maintains a children’s daily free lunch service at the comedor community center for advice about getting attendance at the first gathering. He suggests handing out an announcement at lunch to take to parents and posting it at stores and the school. We think an announcement by him at church beforehand will also be invaluable.

Another meeting of the six principals to decide how much can actually be stated about still-undecided details at the public meeting, and to compose the final announcement from Ed and Sierra’s notes around a laptop computer on a small table in the lobby of Jacob Santos’ B & B (unquestionably a first-time event). Ed is going to coordinate when I leave so he has devised a list of responsibilities: Sierra – publicity and education, Scott – budget & finance, Nicola – composting/planting & workshops consultant, Johnny – tool shed construction, yard supervision, water, municipal representation & outreach to local leaders. 

Distribute the flyer to children at Fanca’s comedor during lunch the next day. It says the mayor will join members of Planet Drum Foundation to present a new fruit tree growing and recycling program.

Assemble at the mayor’s house the night before to give him our thoughts about the announcement he will make. In answering his questions, I admit the considerable limitations on what we can decide about the project process and details without knowing how many participants will show up. We also need to research other community experiences with various recycling methods. I tell Judy in an e-mail how up to this point it is all unknown territory and that we are in anticipatory suspension to know a) whether our publicity worked and/or people are interested, b) if Leo can fire up the crowd for such a potentially transformative community enterprise, and c) whether we can field questions about details that will inevitably include urgent issues such as poverty and sick children.

There are only two Fanca women waiting at the comedor the next day a half-hour before the meeting. Six planners and the church assistant outnumber them by over three to one. I have an apprehensive feeling and walk to the municipal garage lot to fill blank time, and bring back a tree seedling in a bag of compost as a demonstration. It adorns the meeting table, and I sit behind it for the next half-hour watching the mostly empty room where Ed and Scott have placed some chairs (but not too many in case we’re disappointed and their presence would highlight that fact). A few more people drift in and more chairs go out. Then some more. An hour after starting time there is a solid row of waiting residents along the opposite wall, one group of ten clustered tightly in a far corner. When the mayor arrives some minutes later, there are already two rows with more people streaming in including some men and two nuns. Scott is eventually able to count sixty-five people. First hurdle cleared, the publicity worked. 

Mayor Leo talks about the need to think ecologically and have an eco-ciudad. He says there are two problems he wants to work on through this project, to begin city-wide recycling and to help Fanca’s disadvantaged population. Gathering organic kitchen wastes in each house to make compost answers the first problem, and growing fruit trees for planting around houses in the community contributes to their sustenance. Homegrown papayas, bananas, and other fruit will be bigger, more nutritious, and more healthy for their children because of the fertilizing compost. They can sell fruit trees and other seedlings after the first house plantings, and produce enough compost for other purposes. In doing these things, Fanca residents will be accomplishing a first for the city and justify the faith of British government grant givers who may help more in the future. He’s counting on them.

There is applause, Leo exits, and then a minute’s pregnant silence. I turn to the mayor’s wife Michelle who whispers, “He didn’t say much about how it works.” My Spanish is still negligible for this purpose. We hadn’t thought out the next step but Nicola gets up from behind our table and improvises so well that it might have been scripted. When people begin shouting back names of trees they want to grow, it’s clear that we’re rolling. She introduces Johnny Delgado who describes how residents can participate and what will take place in two weeks at the next meeting/working session for learning about separating garbage. (Audience members are shouting, “Can we use banana peels?” “How about pineapple leaves?”) We pass around sign-up sheets that move slowly because of the large number who want to join. Unexpectedly but perfectly, Michelle stands up to close the gathering and urges people to spread the word and bring two or three of their neighbors next time. Second hurdle cleared, the crowd is fired up. 

One woman asked why she should participate when she lacks running water, but other members of the group listed suggestions about getting it. Over the third hurdle, questions adequately fielded. The project is started running. I carried the plant like a friend back to the municipal lot where a city bulldozer was already clearing the compost area. 

A woman from the meeting urged us to come and see what she had accomplished over three years at her place. There were ten fully developed and half-grown banana trees and one papaya along with a dozen flowering plants in a margin of barely three feet around the one-room bamboo house. She re-used lightly soapy dish washing and bath water on all of them, and simply threw fruit skins and egg shells at the base of their trunks to break down into fertilizing nutrients. It was an amazing display and proof of what the project can accomplish for the whole neighborhood, and hopefully over time, the entire city. 

Update on Bosque en Medio de las Ruinas revegetation park in Maria Auxiliadora barrio. Ed & Scott upgraded trails tremendously by macheteing out overgrowth, raking them, and placing markers of rubble cones spaced along the sides. Our sign stating the bioregional purpose of the park had blown down and been in the safe-keeping of the resident invasion (squatter) family on the ridgetop. It was rewelded onto its metal pole, reinforced with lengths of rebar, set in concrete at a better viewing angle, and painted to cover welding marks. Then they built two rubble cones to mark the stairway entrance and a fence of found lumber. Up until then the entrance had been practically invisible. 

They rushed to finish in time for radical educationist Keibo Oiwa to show up for a tour with twenty of his eco-activist Japanese students from Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama. Three wasp nests had been removed just the afternoon before because they could explode with hundreds of stinging insects if a tree was accidentally shaken by the students (the wasps will rebuild soon enough but hopefully away from the trails). Two fearless local teenagers took on the task. 

Sierra & Scott did a credible job of leading their own sections of curious students through, showing native plants, describing erosion control problems, and pointing out what had been done to reduce them. A confidence building experience for them, and made me feel fully justified about the value of the park.

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